From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Lewis Chessmen
UigChessmen SelectionOfKings.jpg
Lewis chessmen in the British Museum[1][2]
Material Walrus Ivory
Created 12th century
Discovered Uig, Lewis in 1831
Present location

The Lewis Chessmen, or Uig Chessmen, are a group of 78 late Norse chess pieces, discovered sometime around 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. The pieces are part of a larger hoard of 93 items, which in addition to the chessmen includes 14 tablesmen and a buckle. Almost all the pieces are carved from walrus ivory, though a few are made from whale's teeth. Their generally accepted source of origin is Scandinavia, most likely Trondheim, sometime in the second half of the 12th century, though recent research has argued for a later date in the 13th century. It is widely believed they came to be buried on Lewis as part of a merchant's lost stock of wares, though a number of alternative theories have been put forward.

The pieces are perhaps the most well-known archaeological find from Scotland, and one of the most iconic images of Scandinavian influence there during the Middle Ages. They may constitute some of the few complete medieval chess sets that have survived until today, although it is not clear if any full set as originally made can be made up from the varied pieces. They are currently owned and exhibited by the British Museum in London and the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, which hold 67 and 11 pieces of the collection respectively. There has been recent controversy as to the most appropriate place for the main display of the pieces.

Historical context[edit]

Viking Age Lewis[edit]

Position of the Isle of Lewis within Scotland's Outer Hebrides

The Isle of Lewis is the northern part of Lewis and Harris, the largest island of the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides of Scotland. In the 9th century, the Hebrides were a partially Christianised society nominally within the Pictish kingdom, yet open to considerable Scottic and Irish influence.[3] The Hebrides first attracted the attention of Viking raiders sometime around the early 800s.[3] Lying on the political periphery of both Pictland and the Dalriadan Scots, local Hebridean rulers could have expected little assistance against the Norse incursions.[3] Sveaas Andersen suggests that these initial raids gave way colonisation after a few decades, and that colonisation itself may have been completed by c. 870.[3] The Frankish Annals of St Bertin and the Icelandic Eyrbyggja saga both suggest that this colonisation began in the mid-9th century.[4]

The evidence of placenames suggests that the northern parts of the Hebrides were densely settled: in Lewis in particular, 99 of the 126 village names are of Norse origin while a further nine have Norse elements.[5] Indeed, the name of Lewis and especially Uig may be of Norse origin.[6][7] The extent of this linguistic evidence of settlement patterns implies the cultural, if not physical obliteration of the indigenous population — in Lewis more so than elsewhere, the native Picts appear to have been reduced to a distinct minority.[8] The establishment of a Norse ruling elite thus disrupted long continuity of social and political development in the region which dated back at least to the Iron Age.[3] Once colonised, the Hebrides became known as Innse Gall ("Isles of the Foreigners") to the Gaels, and remained part of the Norse world until their secession to the Kingdom of Scotland by the Treaty of Perth in 1266.[9][10]

By the 11th century, Lewis formed the northernmost part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, which was itself subject to the Kingdom of Norway.[11] Regular contact with royal authority in Norway became a prominent feature of the period: the 13th century Chronicles of the Kings of Mann record seven Norwegian military interventions in the Isles between 1098-1253, as well as several mentions of Islesmen attending court in Norway.[12] The foundation of the Archdiocese of Nidaros as a metropolitan see at Trondheim in 1152/3 was a key political and ecclesiastical event for the Kingdom of the Isles.[13][14] Its establishment reinforced links between Norway and the Isles, by incorporating the latter within a vast ecclesiastical province of 11 bishoprics.[15][13] Lewis also had regular episcopal contact within the Diocese of the Isles: its bishop appears to have made habitual visitations upon major churches within his bishopric based around the year's major festivals, and tithes to support the diocese were collected at episcopal centres such as Teampull Mholuidh at Eoropie in the northern tip of Lewis.[16]

Archaeology of Lewis[edit]

The archaeological study of Scotland and the Western Isles is badly underdeveloped for the Middle Ages and the Norse period, traditionally being directed towards Scottish prehistory.[17] Norse sites in the Hebrides have proved exceptionally elusive, even in areas such as Bhaltos in Lewis where there has been extensive survey and excavation,[5] though one 10-11th century Norse farming settlement was excavated among a number of sites eroding from the Barvas machair on the island's northwest coast in 1978.[18] Viking Age burials and artefacts are plentiful in Lewis, however.[5] There have been a number of small-scale investigations of an eroding cemetery in the machair on the Cnip Headland on the Bhaltos peninsula since 1979, which forms the largest known concentration of Viking Age burials in the Hebrides.[19] The first and most richly furnished of these burials contained personal grave goods which show clear signs of Lewis' far-reaching trade contacts as part of the Norse world; including two skilfully crafted, gilt-bronze oval brooches, highly ornamented with a series of zoomorphic designs, which were almost certainly imported from specialist craft centres as are known Birka in Sweden or Dublin in Ireland.[20] Two other important finds in Lewis include an isolated burial near Bhaltos school, and a coin hoard from the grounds of Lews Castle in Stornoway.[21] However, the apparent lack of proto-urban Norse centres, and the paucity of coins in Scottish hoards compared with those of Ireland, has led James Graham-Campbell to suggest that the Norse settlers in Scotland were less engaged in overseas trade than their Hiberno-Norse counterparts.[22]


There are two separate provenances offered for the hoard: one being from an underground stone structure unearthed in the township of Mealasta, the other being an area of sand dunes at Ardroil on the southern side of Uig Strand.[23] The dunes of Uig Strand are the traditionally accepted findspot.[24] However, Caldwell et al. believe that the accounts traditionally promulgated about the hoard's discovery and provenance may either have been misinterpreted or undeservedly asserted as fact.[24]

The earliest contemporary record of the hoard is 11 April 1831, when the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh exhibited the pieces with the permission of one Mr. Roderick Ririe of Stornoway.[24] F. W. L. Thomas is the first to record, in 1863, the name of the original finder as Malcolm MacLeod, from the nearby township of Peighinn Dhomhnuill who discovered the hoard in "a sandbank in the Mains of Uig".[24] Thomas' account comes from a secondary source, however: the manuscript of noted local story-teller Donald Morrison, known as An Sgoilear Bàn.[24] Another version traceable to the late 19th century alleges that MacLeod did not dig out all the pieces but that the task was instead undertaken by a gentleman from Stornoway, who we may speculate to have been Mr. Ririe.[25]

A number of sources corroborate that Ririe brought the entire known collection of 93 pieces to Edinburgh for sale.[25] Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, a noted Scottish collector, acquired ten face pieces before Ririe sold the bulk to watchmaker, jeweller and medallist T. A. Forrest.[26] On 29 June 1831, The Scotsman reported that Forrest had recently purchased "upwards of 70 chessmen" of bone, uncovered some months previously by a peasant digging a sand bank, near the ruined nunnery in Uig.[26] Later that year, Forrest sold 82 pieces to the British Museum.[26] Apparently, however, in addition to knowing little of the background of his purchase, Forrest also did not know that he had only acquired some of the pieces; from 1832 on, the British Museum accused him of dishonesty in failing to disclose that they were not acquiring the entire hoard.[27] Sharpe later acquired a bishop from a source in Lewis, which would seem to have been the final piece of the hoard to be sold, though it is today unclear to which bishop this refers.[28] There is no strong evidence to suggest that anyone other than Malcolm MacLeod, and perhaps Ririe, was involved in the original discovery of the hoard.[27]

In 1832, palaeographer Frederic Madden repeated the discovery story as it appeared in The Scotsman, but noted that "a private letter from Edinburgh states the story of the nunnery to be fictitious, but that a ruin of some note exists not far from the spot where these chessmen were found".[27] The following year, in a paper to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Scottish antiquary David Laing quoted a note from Sharpe indicating that the hoard had been found, partially covered with sand, in a vaulted chamber about six feet (1.83 m) long and whose floor was covered with ash.[27] The location given for this chamber was "near a spot where tradition affirms a nunnery once stood".[27] In 1851, archaeologist Daniel Wilson published a report on the discovery that he got from Sharpe.[23] According to this account, the find was made some distance from the shore after sudden coastal erosion had removed a sizeable part of a sandbank in the parish of Uig, revealing a small subterranean, oven-like building at some depth below the surface.[23] Wilson suggests that this building was a "weem" or souterrain, close to a considerable ruin.[23] This ruin was later identified at Mealasta in 1852-1853 by the Ordnance Survey as the supposed nunnery.[23]

From these reports Cadwell et al. note that none of the authors appear to have had no familiarity with Lewis, nor is there any traceable information of any value on the hoard's supposed discover, Malcolm MacLeod.[23] They conclude that all information on the Mealasta provenance stems from Ririe, who may have helped recover the pieces or been closely related to someone who did, whereas the traditionally preferred Uig Strand provenance comes from the account of a storyteller.[29] Although the evidence is far from conclusive, there exists therefore the strong possibility that the hoard was in fact deposited in Mealasta.[29] This is supported circumstantially by a later paper by Thomas in 1870, which identified a souterrain at Mealsta, and by a 12th or 13th century copper-alloy finger ring found on the adjacent shore at Mol Tiacanish in 2003.[29]


The find comprises at least 93 items consisting of 78 chessmen, 14 plain counters or tablesmen and a belt buckle.[30] Almost all are carved from walrus ivory, with a few possibly made instead from whale's teeth.[13] The 78 pieces consist of 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks, and 19 pawns.[30] The pieces can be divided into two groups: figurative ("face pieces") and abstract (limited to the pawns and featuring geometric designs). They appear in sufficient quantity to represent four chess sets (missing one knight, four rooks and forty five pawns).[30] Some pieces bore traces of red stain when found, indicating that red and white were used to distinguish the two sides, rather than the black and white used in modern chess.[31] The general condition of the pieces is excellent and they do not seem to have been used much, if at all.[2]

There is a solid foundation of almost 180 years of scholarship on the pieces, taken from a predominantly art-historical approach, starting with Frederic Madden's ground-breaking and still important report of 1832 on the pieces acquired by the British Museum.[32][33] The kings, queens and some of the bishops are seated figures, featuring thrones variously embellished with Romanesque foliate, animal carvings and other designs.[34] Each of the kings is depicted holding a sword across his knees, with his right hand gripping the hilt and left hand securing the scabbard or blade.[35] All but possibly two of the kings appear to have beards, and all but one feature long-braided hair extending down their backs.[35] The exception wears his hair cropped to shoulder length, which may be a conscious representation of a change in fashion.[35] The pieces have open crowns ornamented with four trefoils, and wear long mantles fastened on the right shoulder and a tunic or dalmatic underneath.[35]

The queens also all sit on thrones, cradling their chins with their right hands.[35] Two hold drinking horns in their left hand, while the others support their right elbows with their left hand.[35] Four wear crowns similar in form to those of the kings, while the other four feature crowns in which the trefoils have merged in a continuous band.[35] All are clad in long mantles or cloaks covering both shoulders, and wear a gown with close sleeves underneath. Their long-braided hair sometimes shows under a veil.[35]

The bishop pieces show the greatest diversity in representation, whether depicted standing or enthroned.[36] All are apparently clean-shaven.[36] The pieces can be divided according to their vestments into two groups, those that wear a cope as an outer garment and those that have a chasuble topmost.[36] Of these, the pieces feature various combinations of cope, chasuble, dalmatic, stole and alb.[36] The pieces can be separately divided into three groups according to variant representations of their mitres.[37] The mitres all have horns, worn front and back, and all but one feature infulae pendant at the back.[37] Each bishop holds a crosier, while some also hold a book or have their right hand raised in blessing.[37]

Although there are 19 pawns (a complete set requires 16), they have the greatest range of sizes of all the pieces, which has suggested that the 78 pieces might belong to at least 5 different sets.[38] All the pieces are sculptures of human figures, except the pawns which are smaller, geometric shapes. The knights are shown holding spears and shields, mounted on rather diminutive horses. The rooks depict standing soldiers or warders holding a shield and sword, four of which are shown as wild-eyed berserkers biting their shields with battle fury.[39]

One feature common across all the identified groups is round open or "bulging" eyes.[40] Some scholars have observed that to the modern eye, the bulging eyes and glum expressions of the figural pieces have a distinct comical character.[41][42] This is especially true of the single rook with its worried, sideways glance, and of the beserkers biting their shields which have been called "irresistibly comic to a modern audience."[43] Also notable are the "famously grumpy queens who rest their chins in their hands, nursing a toothache or fretting about the weather".[31] However, scholars believe that the apparent comic or sad quality was not intended or perceived by their makers as such.[41] Instead, these images may have displayed strength, ferocity or, in the case of the queens who hold their heads with a hand, "contemplation, repose and possibly wisdom."[41] James Robinson suggests that the depiction of the queens is derivative of the medieval theme of the grieving Virgin Mary, the Mater Dolorosa, and reflects the horror of civil society at the carnage of battle.[31] Similarly, as Brian Spencer discusses, the bulging eyes may also have reinforced a perceived amuletic or apotropaic quality.[40]


Place of manufacture[edit]

The long-established academic view is that the pieces are Scandinavian in origin, and there is a growing consensus that the craftsmen who made the pieces may mostly have worked in Trondheim, Norway,[44] although some scholars have suggested other sources in the Scandinavian world, including England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Denmark and Norway.[45] Lewis itself has occasionally been suggested as the pieces' place of manufacture, but the lack of archaeological evidence makes this highly unlikely.[45] Studies of the piece's milieu have approached from a predominantly art-historical basis, giving regard to stylistic considerations.[44]

Robinson, p 30-35

The intricate carvings on the back of the pieces are comparable to wood carvings on Norwegian stave churches and on the doorways of Ely Cathedral, as well as to a number of ivories.[34][11] This is traditionally taken to indicate a date sometime around the middle of the 12th century.[34][11]

In 1997, Neil Stratford conducted an assessment of their probable artistic origin for the British Museum, which assigned their manufacture to Norway, suggesting Trondheim as the likely site of the workshop in which they were crafted.[46] This theory is supported by the discovery of a similar chess piece dating from broadly the same period, found in the early excavations of St. Olaf's church in Trondheim.[46][11] The piece was the upper part of a queen, with the same staring eyes and strong facial features as its Lewis counterparts.[34] However, as the excavation took place in the late 19th century, only a drawing survives of the piece,[34] but it would not have looked out of place among the Lewis hoard.[46]

The most recent reassessment of the hoard appears in David Cadwell, Mark Hall and Caroline Wilkinson's interdisciplinary The Lewis Hoard of Gaming Pieces. Caldwell et al. agree that Trondheim's 12th and 13th century material culture and architecture form a close fit for the hoard.[44] They additionally cite the plant-scroll work in the Cathedral Octagon, which resembles that on some of the chessmen; the excavation of a wooden, kite-shaped shield; and the recent discovery of a related whale-tooth king on the island of Hitra near the mouth of the Trondheim fjord.[44] They also note that excavations in the town itself have revealed several early gaming pieces, including wooden pawns and a king from 13th-century contexts.[44] However, while recognising "that the dating framework remains fluid", these scholars are inclined to move the date of at least some of the Lewis pieces from the latter half of the 12th century into the early 13th century.[44]


Caroline Wilkinson, a forensic anthropologist, undertook a comparative facial analysis of the pieces, focusing on facial morphology and proportional comparisons of mouths, noses and eyes.[47] The study produced viable results for 50 of the 59 faces in the hoard, identifying five groups (A-E) with similar facial morphologies.[47] Group C pieces occur in all four chess sets, group A and D in three, and groups B and E in two.[48] In drawing conclusions from this research, it is a reasonable assumption that different craftsmen may be identified by common features within each group.[48] Due to the apparent overlap of the groups with the different chess sets, Caldwell et al. concludes that the pieces were made by several craftsmen in the same workshop, "a largish establishment with four or more master craftsmen working on ivory chess-pieces at any one time."[48]

There were presumably three main stages in the manufacture of a chessman: firstly, the selection of a suitable piece of ivory or tooth; secondly, carving it into shape; and finally, giving the piece a good finish, while removing any remaining tool marks.[49] The walrus ivory used for the majority of the pieces was expensive, and considerable skill was employed in maximising the number of chessmen the tusk could provide, in order to ensure that as little ivory as possible was wasted in the manufacturing process.[50] Caldwell et al. note some anomalous errors whereby the hair on two otherwise well-designed and executed pieces, a knight and a bishop, are unfinished, yet the final stage of polishing them has already been undertaken.[48] In explanation, they suggest that such errors would only arise in a workshop where there was a division of labour, with some craftsmen carving the pieces and others finishing them off.[51] In another example of substandard work, one knight displays a horizontal slot in the chest of the horse, possibly the result of the craftsman carelessly sawing too deeply while cutting the outline of the horse's head.[51] These mistakes during manufacture are most likely the product "of a workshop under pressure to deliver rather than one that habitually produced poor work".[51]

The range of artistic quality of the groups does however indicate different craftsmen of varying skill: "at the upper end of this scale the craftsman who carved the type-D pieces can be reckoned a genius", whereas in contrast, the carver of the type-C pieces can only be described as "somebody with less ability or sense of design".[52] For example, on one of the type-C bishops, there appears to be a chasuble on one side of the crosier, but not the other.[36] This may either be a mistake on the part of the carver, or perhaps an indication that he really did not understand what he was trying to represent.[36]

Arrival and burial on Lewis[edit]

Modern theories[edit]

The ownership of the pieces, how they came to Lewis and the reason for their burial is less clear. The pieces were clearly prestigious items and their abandonment occurred in obscure circumstances.[11][13] If of Scandinavian origin, "the only possible mechanism by which they could have reached the island was by ship".[44] The most widely accepted explanation to account for this postulates that the pieces came to Lewis as part of the stock of a merchant who buried his goods but did not survive to recover them.[53] Indeed, the large number of pieces and their lack of signs of wear would seem to suggest that they belonged to a dealer in such pieces, rather than being the personal property of an individual.[1]

However, this alone constitutes "hardly an adequate explanation for the peculiar circumstances of their deposition".[11] Hence, the argument often includes the assumption that the merchant was en route from Scandinavia to markets further south in Britain or Ireland, via Scotland's western seaboard, and that the hoard's arrival on Lewis was unintentional, perhaps a consequence of shipwreck.[54][55] The court of Dublin and the local Hebridean aristocracy could easily have provided markets for chess sets.[56] In particular, Robinson points to the find of a late 12th century chess queen in a bog in County Meath, discovered some time prior to 1817 and now in the National Museum of Ireland, as evidence of trade in uxury goods along the Scandinavia-Ireland route.[54] Although of inferior craftsmanship, the Meath queen resembles the Lewis queen as a seated figure bearing her head in her hands.[57] Shipwrecks were undoubtedly common in the North Atlantic sea-lanes of the Norse: Njál's saga and the Orkneyinga saga both record shipwrecks and losses of cargo on the rocks of Iceland and the Shetland Islands respectively.[58] In this case, the supposed merchant may have had an incentive to conceal from local officials that he had landed goods, in order to avoid paying the considerable tolls prescribed by law in the Kingdom of the Isles.[55]

Caldwell et al. argue that there are other possible reasons as to why the hoard arrived at Lewis, however, and that the "deus ex machina explanation of a passing merchant losing his stock" is probably the least plausible.[59] For one matter, there are extensive archaeological, historical and literary records ranging from the 7th to the 17th centuries which attest the association of gaming equipment and ships, and finds of such gaming equipment with ships has been "logically interpreted not as cargo but as part of the recreational equipment of the ship's crew".[60] Even if one were to assume that the pieces arrived in a shipwreck, labelling them as the property of a merchant would be an unnecessary logical step.

In Caldwell's opinion, "the most obvious explanation for the hoard should be that it belonged in Lewis to a person, and in a society, which valued its contents as gaming pieces".[24] This argument seems valid because the only other ivory chessmen of similar quality to the Lewis pieces also appear in the West Highlands.[24] One is a walrus ivory knight in the National Museum of Scotland, dated to the mid-13th century and believed to have been found in 1763 during the drainage of Loch St Columba in the parish of Kilmuir.[24] The other is a now lost king from Dunstaffnage Castle in Argyll and Bute, carved from the tooth of a sperm whale and "clearly in the same tradition as the Lewis kings", but whose style points to a 16th century manufacture.[24] It is also the case that there were several local nobles and high-ranking clerics in late-Norse Lewis who could have afforded and aspired to own such gaming pieces.[16] In this explanation, the pieces could indeed have been brought to Lewis by merchants, albeit intentionally rather than by accident, or they could have come as part of a system of gifts or stipends from overlords or the bishops of the Isles.[61] Barbara Crawford suggests the hoard might relate in some way to Godred Olafsson of Mann's royal visit to Norway in 1152 to pay homage to the King of Norway in 1152; the hoard might have been either a royal gift from one king to another, or else a suitable gift from the Archbishop of Nidaros to the Bishop of the Isles to mark the incorporation of the diocese within the metropolitan see.[62] Caldwell agrees that the arrival of many of the pieces in Lewis in 1152 is a possibility, though he argues that such a date is far to early to account for their burial.[62]

As regards the motive for their burial, one suggested possibility is the constant hazard of Viking raiding and piracy down to the 13th century.[58] The Orkneyinga saga records how the 12th century Orcadian nobleman Sveinn Asleifarson had a pattern of spring and autumn raiding in the Hebrides and Ireland.[58] According to the saga, "the Hebrideans were so scared of [him] that they hid whatever they could carry either in among the rocks or underground" – a very tempting possible explanation for the circumstances of the Lewis hoard's burial, as well as why in a later trip the saga notes that Sveinn received little plunder from the Hebrides.[58] Caldwell et al. ask whether such raiders might also have regarded captured gaming pieces as spoil to be divided and hoarded.[58]

Oral tradition[edit]

Various local stories have also evolved to explain the circumstances of their concealment and later discovery.[2] The earliest known version is Donald Morrison's tale of the "Uig Chessmen", which anachronistically attributes the burial to a herdsman in the 17th century.[29] The main variant of the story, said to have been current in a ceilidh house near Baile na Cille in the late 19th century, names the herdsman in question as "An Gille Ruadh", or "the red gillie" —- a servant of the MacKenzie tacksman of Baile na Cille.[63] According to the story, An Gille Ruadh murdered a young sailor fleeing his ship for the treasure bundle he was carrying, which he then buried.[64] Though the gillie was unable to return to collect his ill-gotten prize, he confessed to his crime some time later from the gallows at Stornoway, where he had been convicted to death for other misdemeanours.[64]

As Reverend William Matheson pointed out in 1971, the Gille Ruadh story may be an authentic example of Uig oral tradition, but its usefulness for providing any information on the Lewis hoard is minimal.[64] There is no proof that anything was known of the chessmen until after their discovery, at which point the existing local tradition may have been adapted as a convenient folkloric explanation.[64] In Caldwell's reiteration, "the root of the story is the discovery of the pieces themselves and the desire by the inhabitants of Uig to locate an outstanding find within the parameters of their own traditions and memories".[64] That the sea should be used to explain chance discoveries is understandable as it serves as such a crucial aspect of Hebridean life.[64] Such oral traditions contribute to the social cohesion of their respective communities, helping to define and maintain collective identity while giving "a sense of continuity and enshrined cultural value".[64] While the Lewis hoard folklore is of little use to the medievalist or archaeologist, it survives as "an important account of a communal response to the discovery of the hoard" in a later period.[64]

Cultural significance[edit]


Recreational purposes, background of chess and tafl

The Orkneyinga saga lists gaming ability as one of the nine key attributes of a nobleman, and indicates that the playing of games was considered a mark of status.[65]

Social context[edit]

The Lewis Chessmen constitute a vivid illustration of the Later Norse period in the Western Isles.[66] The Lewis rook may be a striking image of a marauding Viking, but the kings, queens and bishops convey a more accurate picture of the settled, christianised and stable society in the 12th century Hebrides.[34] The destructive period of the Viking Age was long over, the adventurers having been replaced by settled landowners.[34] According to Anna Richtie, the chessmen represent how the "cultural achievements of the earldom were on a par with the rest of Europe, with all the proper machinery of State and Church".[34]

They also "testify to the strong cultural and political connections between Britain and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages", and to the growing popularity within Europe of the game of chess, the origins of which lie in ancient India".[1] Economically, the find indicates the relative wealth and close contacts "with the mainstream Norse world" held by at least some inhabitants of the Hebrides well in the Later Norse period, just as the graves at Bhaltos and Cnip Headland had confirmed in the earlier periods of Norse inhabitation.[11]

Display history[edit]


They were exhibited by Ryrie at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, on April 11, 1831. The chessmen were soon after split up, with 10 being purchased by Kirkpatrick Sharpe and the others (67 chessmen and 14 tablemen) were purchased on behalf of the British Museum in London.

Kirkpatrick Sharpe later found another bishop to take his collection up to eleven, all of which were later sold to Lord Londesborough. In 1888 they were again sold, but this time the purchaser was the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, who donated the pieces to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh. The eleven are now on display in the Museum of Scotland.

The pieces given to the British Museum are still located there, and most can be found in Room 42 with the registration numbers M&ME 1831, 11–1.78–159. Others have been lent to Scottish museums and temporary exhibitions.[1] A range of resin or plastic replicas are popular items in the Museum shops.

The chessmen were number 5 in the list of British archaeological finds selected by experts at the British Museum for the 2003 BBC Television documentary Our Top Ten Treasures presented by Adam Hart-Davis.


In 2007–2008 a dispute arose regarding the most appropriate place to display the pieces. The issue first arose[citation needed] late in 2007 with calls from Scottish National Party (SNP) politicians in the Western Isles (notably Cllr Annie Macdonald, MSP Alasdair Allan and MP Angus MacNeil) for the return of the pieces to the place they were found. Linda Fabiani the Scottish Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture stated that "it is unacceptable that only 11 Lewis Chessmen rest at the National Museum of Scotland while the other 82 remain in the British Museum in London". Richard Oram, Professor of Medieval and Environmental History at the University of Stirling, agreed arguing that there was no reason for there to be more than "a sample" of the collection in London. Both points of view have been dismissed by Margaret Hodge the UK Minister of State in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, writing "It's a lot of nonsense, isn't it?"[67] The local historical society in Uig, Comann Eachdraidh Uig, which operates a registered museum near the find site featuring detailed information about the chessmen and Norse occupation in Lewis, has indicated publicly that it has no intention of pursuing any claim to the ownership of the pieces and does not support demands for them to be sent to Edinburgh, but would welcome short-term loans.[68]

In October 2009 24 of the pieces from the London collection and 6 from Edinburgh began a 16 month tour of diverse locations in Scotland. The tour is part-funded by the Scottish Government and Mike Russell, the Minister for Culture and External Affairs stated that the Government and the British Museum had "agreed to disagree" on their eventual fate. Bonnie Greer, the museum's deputy chairman said that she "absolutely" believed the main collection should remain in London.[69]

Cultural impact[edit]

The Lewis Chessmen remain the most popular image of Scandinavian Scotland, as evidenced by the array of replica chess sets and souvenir replicas of individual pieces widely sold, as well as by their appearance in other media.[30][33] Richtie notes that the image of the chessmen "appears on anything from tea-towels to gas-fires".[30] The pieces have also had a noticeable impact on locally based brands in the Hebrides: the Hebridean Brewery Company of Stornoway currently brews "Berserker Export Pale Ale" (whose pump clip is illustrated by one of the Lewis shield-biting berserkers), while the Ardroil Grazings Committee erected a giant wooden statue of a king piece, created by Stephen Hayward, in the dunes of Ardroil, Uig Bay in 2006.[44] Caldwell, Hall and Wilkinson see this as "a revealing comment both on the depth of artistic inspiration and re-telling that museums and medieval material culture can fuel".[44]

The earliest apparent depiction of the Lewis Chessmen in film, in the Swedish allegory The Seventh Seal (1957), sets the pieces against the 14th century century backdrop of the Black Death.[33] The 1959 French film Le Bossu includes a chess set modelled on the Lewis pieces, played by two 18th century noblemen.[33] Lewis-style chess sets appear in a more appropriate 12th century context in the film Becket (1964), in which the red and white pieces are the property of Louis VII of France in a game with one of his noblemen, and in The Lion in Winter (1968), in which black and white pieces are used in a game between Philip II of France and Henry II's son Geoffrey.[33] Most recently, red and white pieces appear in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001).[33] In this most recent portrayal, in which a replica of the Lewis chessmen is used to depict a game of "wizard's chess", an enraged queen picks up her throne which she uses smash the piece being taken into fragments — an animated sequence reflective of the modern audience's appreciation of the chessmen's comic quality.[31]

The children's writer Rosemary Sutcliff wrote her Chess-Dream in a Garden around the Lewis pieces.[33] The chessmen also inspired the classic children's animation The Saga of Noggin the Nog, which aired on BBC Television from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and appeared in book form in 1968 and 1992.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d British Museum Website.
  2. ^ a b c British Museum Website.
  3. ^ a b c d e Armit, p 186
  4. ^ Graham-Campbell, p 45
  5. ^ a b c Armit, p 188
  6. ^ Iain Mac an Tailleir. "Placenames" (PDF). Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. 
  7. ^ Iain Mac an Tailleir. "Placenames" (PDF). Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. 
  8. ^ Armit, pp. 188, 203
  9. ^ Graham-Campbell, p 71
  10. ^ Armit, pp. 188, 204
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Armit, p 204
  12. ^ Caldwell, p 174
  13. ^ a b c d Graham-Campbell, p 263
  14. ^ Caldwell, p 175
  15. ^ Caldwell, pp. 175-176
  16. ^ a b Caldwell, p 176
  17. ^ Armit, p 205
  18. ^ Armit, p 192
  19. ^ Armit, p 197
  20. ^ Armit, pp. 197, 199, 201
  21. ^ Armit, pp. 194, 201
  22. ^ Armit, p 194
  23. ^ a b c d e f Caldwell, p 171
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i Caldwell, p 168
  25. ^ a b Caldwell, pp. 168-169
  26. ^ a b c Caldwell, p 169
  27. ^ a b c d e Caldwell, p 170
  28. ^ Caldwell, pp. 169-170
  29. ^ a b c d Caldwell, p 172
  30. ^ a b c d e Richtie, p 106
  31. ^ a b c d BBC A History of the World
  32. ^ Caldwell, p 155
  33. ^ a b c d e f g h Caldwell, p 164
  34. ^ a b c d e f g h Richtie, p 107
  35. ^ a b c d e f g h Caldwell, p 191
  36. ^ a b c d e f Caldwell, p 192
  37. ^ a b c Caldwell, p 193
  38. ^ Robinson, p. 30.
  39. ^ Robinson, pp. 28-29.
  40. ^ a b Caldwell, p 190
  41. ^ a b c Robinson, pp. 37-41
  42. ^ Stratford, p 48
  43. ^ Robinson, p 37
  44. ^ a b c d e f g h i Caldwell, p 165
  45. ^ a b Robinson, p 14
  46. ^ a b c Graham-Campbell, p 264
  47. ^ a b Caldwell, p 183
  48. ^ a b c d Caldwell, p 185
  49. ^ Caldwell, pp. 185-186
  50. ^ Caldwell, pp. 187-188
  51. ^ a b c Cite error: The named reference Caldwell186 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  52. ^ Caldwell, p 189
  53. ^ Caldwell, pp. 165-166
  54. ^ a b Robinson, p 58
  55. ^ a b Caldwell, p 166
  56. ^ Robinson, p 59
  57. ^ Robinson, p 58-59
  58. ^ a b c d e Caldwell, p 167
  59. ^ Caldwell, pp. 167, 176
  60. ^ Caldwell, p 166-167
  61. ^ Caldwell, pp. 176-177
  62. ^ a b Caldwell, p 178
  63. ^ Caldwell, pp. 172-173
  64. ^ a b c d e f g h Caldwell, p 173
  65. ^ Caldwell, p 177
  66. ^ Armit, p 203
  67. ^ Burnett, Allan (February 3, 2008) "Stalemate". Glasgow. The Sunday Herald.
  68. ^ Uig News, February 2008
  69. ^ Cornwell, Tim (2 October 2009) "Chessmen 'will never come home'. The Scotsman. Edinburgh.


  • British Museum Website.
  • HJR Murray, A History of Chess (Oxford University Press)
  • Robinson, James (2004), The Lewis Chessmen, British Museum Press 
  • N. Stratford, The Lewis chessmen and the enigma of the hoard (The British Museum Press, 1997)
  • Michael Taylor, The Lewis Chessmen (British Museum Publications Limited)

External links[edit]